What Congress Can Learn from the Pope

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In a development big enough to upstage the Grammys, Pope Benedict XVI announced that, effective 28 February, he would be resigning the papacy, the first time a pope has done so since the Middle Ages.

While there has certainly been several controversies during Pope Benedict’s reign (un-excommunicating a holocaust denier, comparing Islam to violence, cracking down on American nuns for being “too liberal” by prioritizing social justice over publicly denouncing homosexuality and abortion, failing to remove pedophile priests and bishops from service interacting with children, and saying condoms never prevent HIV transmission while in Africa just to name a few), his resignation is attributed to age and declining health. He stated,

“I am well aware that I ought to carry out this duty in accordance with its spiritual essence not only by acting and speaking, but no less by enduring and praying. But nevertheless in the world of our time, subjected to rapid changes and disturbed by questions of great weight in the face of a life of faith, a certain vigor of body and of spirit is necessary for captaining the ship of Saint Peter and for announcing the Gospel, a vigor which in the past months is diminished in me in such a way that I ought to recognize my incapability to administer well to the ministry committed to me. For which reason, well aware of the weight of this act, I declare in full liberty that I renounce myself from the ministry of the Episcopacy of Rome, of the Successor of Saint Peter(…) a Conclave should be summoned for electing a new Supreme Pontiff from those for whom it is suitable. (…)” (Translation from Latin by Professor Megan Drinkwater, Agnes Scott College)

The last pope to resign willingly was in 1294, so needless to say this is an extraordinary event. Other church officials have cited the move as “courageous,” and I’d have to agree. It takes a certain degree of self-awareness and wisdom to admit when you’re no longer physically and mentally able to perform a duty to the abilities you feel your job requires.

Presently, there are 21 Senators and 44 Members of the House over the age of 70. I’m not by any means suggesting that at age 70 people automatically lose control of or have seriously diminished faculties, but chances are around 13% of Congresspeople over the age of 71 are legislating with declining mental and/or physical status.  There are many who, while their health may be great, have been in congress for 30 years. That’s 30 years without working a “normal” job; 30 years entrenched in the Washington system.

Are term limits the answer? I don’t know. Is an age maximum the answer (after all, there is a Constitutional minimum age for House Representative, Senator, and President)? Again, I don’t know. However, our politicians should be encouraged to hold themselves to a higher standard and to have the humility to accept age gracefully and pass the job along if their health condition is detrimental to acting for the people to the fullest.